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Opinion: A wildfire destroyed the tree I planted seven decades ago — and with it my hope for the future

Opinion by Ariel Dorfman

Santiago, Chile (CNN) — How do we mourn the death of one solitary tree, when whole forests burn down? As fires rage in Texas, after they ravaged Australia in recent days, Colombia in recent weeks and California and Hawaii last year, how do we recall that the vast woodlands being obliterated are made up of individual trees that will never rise again?

My own grief and need to remember is centered in Chile, where I have been watching a fiery conflagration that has, in recent weeks, consumed thousands of acres of my country and ravaged countless buildings, with a toll of more than 120 compatriots dead and hundreds more missing.

The devastation, which I witnessed from my home in Santiago about 100 miles away, had a special twist: I had a personal connection to one particular tree among the many that were reduced to ash in this wildfire.

I planted it almost three quarters of a century ago, when I was just 7 years old.

I was visiting Chile for a fortnight, on my way back to New York, where I had lived with my family since the age of 2. My father decided I was old enough for a ritual that he had experienced with his own dad: it was time for me to plant a tree. Once I had done that, he said, all I needed was to write a book and have a son.

And so he took me to the Jardín Botánico Nacional de Viña del Mar, Chile’s national botanical garden. A young female caretaker guided us to a site where she was certain that a tree could flourish and provided me with a small shovel and a seed. I covered it with earth, said good-bye as if it were an old friend and promised to return and see how much it had grown.

I never did revisit that spot (the crude map I’d drawn at our hotel was quickly lost), but I did come back to Chile when I was 12 to make it my home. I eventually became a citizen, married, published my first book and, yes, fathered a son. If I never kept that promise to my tree, it was never far from my mind as the years passed.

And it became all the more significant when I went into exile after the 1973 military coup overthrew President Salvador Allende. That mythical tree became a way of defeating the distance imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. I would often comfort myself with the thought that the tree my younger self had planted was rising up out of Chilean soil, branching out as it welcomed birds and beetles, blessing the botanical gardens with greenery, beckoning to me from afar, murmuring that a piece of my past was awaiting me — that not everything had been lost and uprooted in the cataclysm of the coup. It was a pledge that seemed to materialize when, after a long struggle, democracy was restored in 1990 to the land that had watched that tree mature.

In the past couple of years, while I wrote a novel about how our species seems to be committing collective suicide thanks to man-made climate change, that tree came to represent hope. As wildfires increasingly wreaked havoc on the planet, I imagined my particular tree resisting the afflictions of time and the depredations of polluters, standing tall against waste and erosion, offering shade and color along with other trees across the world in a symbol of endurance and continuity.

In all likelihood, that tree, planted by me as a child, has now been reduced to cinders. The 990-acre botanic garden — home to 1,300 species, some of which are on the brink of extinction — was almost completely destroyed, along with other casualties: 30 dogs in a kennel, immeasurable other small animals and birds and, alas, four human beings.

Among them was Patricia Araya, who, over the last three decades, had been working as a horticulturalist, readying new seeds for germination. Her two young grandchildren also died, along with Patricia’s 92-year-old mother who was a greenhouse keeper when she was younger. And I have been wondering, with dread, if this elderly woman might not have been the very adolescent who, back then, afforded a seed and a shovel to an eager 7-year-old boy. I fear that the guardian and godmother of my tree was the one who perished.

Of that tree, only the story of its origin and its ending remains. Of course, there are a myriad of other, anonymous trees that were destroyed by wildfires both in Chile and around the world, that do not have a story like this one. And like those lifeless trees in Viña del Mar, each man, woman and child who died in that fire was someone with a story of their own that I do not know how to tell. And beyond the Chilean tragedy there loom other tragedies, upheavals of incalculable magnitude across an imperiled globe, as the atmosphere grows ever hotter and we sleepwalk toward apocalypse.

Acres of land have turned into smoldering, fume-filled wastelands — in Chile last month, in Texas today and who knows where else in the near future. It’s a reminder to pay homage and give thanks to each and every tree that succumbs to this climate debacle.

Perhaps the tree I planted so long ago can, therefore, render one last service and help to awaken our humanity even a tiny bit to what we are doing to the earth — and to ourselves. This leaves us with the question: Without lying, how do we give hope to the little boys or girls today who might place a seed in the ground and say good-bye to the tree and promise to come back to visit? How can we make sure that the tree — and the children — will grow up without fear of the fire that is coming for us all?

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